What David Cameron could learn from Marx about radicalisation (but probably won't)

In the hands of politicians religion becomes impregnated with 'polemical bitterness' - to talk about religion without considering its 'political tendencies' is to chose a path of willful blindness. 

William Eichler
2 July 2015
Karl Marx. Flickr/Montecruz Foto. Some rights reserved

Karl Marx. Flickr/Montecruz Foto. Some rights reserved

The government is, apparently, concerned about radicalisation. David Cameron told the Globsec conference in Slovakia that the Islamist narrative about the evils of the west is given too much credence. “[It] paves the way” he said, “for young people to turn simmering prejudice into murderous intent. To go from listening to firebrand preachers online to boarding a plane to Istanbul and travelling onward to join the jihadis.” 

George Packer, writing in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre last January, put forth a similar argument. He was adamant that the murder of twelve people in the heart of France was not the result of France’s foreign policy, it had nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq, and it certainly was not connected to Islamophobia. It was, he wrote, “only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades.”

Ideology alone, according to this line of thinking, creates murderers. Western actions play no part in the process. Jihadists are created, not by war abroad or discrimination at home, but solely by hate preachers and the YouTube videos they use to indoctrinate impressionable young minds.

This is not, of course, an entirely false picture. Islamism is a noxious ideology (yes, even in its most peaceful forms) and people are manipulated by hate preachers on the Internet. But there is more to it than this and Karl Marx can, perhaps, provide some guidance.

In an article for the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842, Marx discussed the relationship between religion and political actors. “In their hands” he wrote referring to politicians, “religion acquires a polemical bitterness impregnated with political tendencies”. This is not merely the truism that religion is exploited for political ends. Marx was also saying that religion--and by extension all ideologies--is always infused with and animated by objective, historical factors or, as he put it, “political tendencies”.

This is most certainly the case with Islamist ideology. It is steeped in the politics of the present and to deny this obvious fact is dishonest. To explain radicalisation simply in terms of an ideology spreading, like a disease, through Muslim communities and infecting the naive without reference to foreign policy in the Middle East or Islamophobia is to opt for a willful blindness to reality.

Radicalisation is about the “war on terror”. It is about the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and the catastrophic results of this that we are seeing today. And it is about Islamophobia. There are other factors involved, to be sure. But to ignore these very real, concrete issues - the “political tendencies” - is to fall dramatically short of understanding why Islamism is able to find itself an audience and why it is that a minority of Muslims are attracted to its “polemical bitterness”.

There is another important, and related, aspect to this issue. Who exactly is Cameron talking to? He is happy to upbraid the Muslim community in Britain but he is more reticent when it comes to our allies abroad. The government was less concerned about Islamist ideology when it flew the flag half-mast over Whitehall out of respect for the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia or when it sent Prince Charles to develop our “special relationship” with the Wahhabist kingdom. It is easier to preach to Bradford than it is to stand up to Riyadh, and, it seems, “British interests” trump the interests of British people.

A frequent response to any analysis of Islamism and the attractions of jihadist violence that seeks to view them in their correct historical and political context is one of anger. Explanation, it is argued, is equal to justification. This is nonsense and to avoid approaching the former in a realistic fashion out of fear of drifting towards the latter is simply to opt for a willful blindness.

David Cameron is unlikely to read any Marx in the near future. Perhaps, though, if he is so concerned about the spread of Islamist ideology and the threat of jihadist terrorism, he should read, and learn from, the recent history of the catastrophic failure of the “war on terror”. War abroad, discrimination at home and the propping up of dictatorial regimes have proven to be ineffective and immoral ways to fight terrorism.


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